Today’s Athletes vs. Yesterday’s Athletes

There's a feud going on in the tennis world that speaks to a timeless subject in sports. Timeless, and tired. I'm not sure I've ever weighed in on the matter in this column, so let me do so today, now, and hopefully never write about it again.

In case you missed it, Nick Kyrgios via The Athletic said the champions of the Boris Becker/Pete Sampras era (no one calls it that, but those are the two players he mentioned by name) would not fare well in today's environment, saying in part, "A big serve back then was like 197 to 200 KM/H. People like me, we serve 220 consistently, to corners ... but serve and volley, to do it all the time now, you need to be serving 220, because if you serve anything less than 220, bro, [Novak] Djokovic eats you alive. He eats you alive."

Kyrgios also said, "I'm not saying they weren't good in their time," and "I'm not saying they wouldn't have found their way," which is downright respectful considering it's Kyrgios.

Becker responded via Twitter, taking it about as well as you might expect, saying Kyrgios has no credibility as a non-slam winner (we call this an appeal to expertise, kids, which is a logical fallacy and a particularly dubious one at that — only slam winners can have informed opinion on this stuff?), and taking other shots ("...speak to your OnlyFans...")

This, of course, is like chum to a shark for Kyrgios, who loves the spotlight and frankly loves to stoke controversy, so now this beef has raged for days, is increasingly centered around ad hominem attacks, and is super dumb.

The "could the old greats compete today?" hypothetical comes up in all sports, all the time, and I'm sick of it. So let me say my feelings on the matter, and it applies across all sports.

As Kyrgios alluded to in talking about serve speed, the numbers that relate to physical strength, speed, athleticism lay out a pretty black-and-white case that we get stronger, faster, and more athletic over time. So if you plucked a star player from 40+ years ago and dropped him immediately into today's game, he probably wouldn't fare well.

However, the people defending the old-timers talk about how today's players have access to advanced training techniques, equipment, and technology that players of the past did not, and if you gave a past star those modern-day amenities, they would indeed be stars today, as well.

It's a valid point. They may be right. What this gets at is something that's hard to quantify: to what extent are today's athletes better because of advanced technology and training, and how much of it is something more raw, more innate, more biologically evolutionary?

We can't know. If you time-traveled Boris Becker to 2023 and gave him a year or two of today's training, maybe he wins 20 slams. Maybe he doesn't crack the top 100. Hell, maybe some rando qualifier-level player in the '80s would beast today with today's tech and training, because maybe he (or she) would get more out of it than a star of yesteryear like Becker. We just can't know!

Given this can't-knowness, I basically stand, by default, with the stars-of-today camp (Kyrgios, in this case). They at least have some hard numbers backing them up. Those numbers may very well need further contextualization in light of that superior training and technology, but at least they have that.

For the most part, the Beckerites in this debate don't have any hard numbers to help their cause. There may be some exceptions — Wayne Gretzky comes to mind, putting up numbers that haven't come remotely close to being equalled — but their numbers are generally worse.

Now, can we please just go back to enjoying sportsball and stop reigniting a debate we can never resolve? Thanks.

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